Destry Rides Again

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Western;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Brian Donlevy, Jack Carson, Irene Hervey, Charles Winninger.

Partly by default and partly because it’s true, 1939’s Destry Rides Again is, as the great Imogen Sara Smith says in her interview on Criterion’s new release of what’s likely the most respected film from director George Marshall, also the best comic Western of all time. To really cut it, any contender has to work as a comedy and a Western, and Destry is pretty close to being able to stand alone in this specialist genre’s latter component. In fact, to my taste, there’s a little too much comedy and certainly music here, but it’s the musical numbers that have given the film its place in history, so what are you going to do?

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Marlene Dietrich is the one of the actresses that exhibitors had listed as “box office poison,” and she was just coming off Ernst Lubitsch’s flop-at-the-time Angel, which is now a major revisionist cause that Kino just brought out in a new Blu-ray that I haven’t seen despite commentary by major leaguer Joseph McBride, a Lubitsch biographer. (I was also struck that Andrew Sarris rated it very highly decades ago in his landmark The American Cinema.) Of all people, Dietrich “creator” and overall guru Josef von Sternberg encouraged her to take on Destry, with was a major face lift to her screen image.

She plays the in-house entertainment and fleecing assistant at the Last Chance Saloon, which is also the best chance around in which to lose your home and often your life in crooked poker games run by the joint’s proprietor (Brian Donlevy, naturally). As “Frenchy,” Dietrich provides gambling distractions but also performs several songs, including one of her signatures: “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” one of several light moments to camouflage the fact that the town law has mysteriously vanished off the face of the Earth. To take his place, the town’s crooked judge who’s under Donlevy’s thumb (Samuel S. Hinds) appoints the saloon’s resident sot (Charles Winninger) as the replacement law. In rare moments of sobriety, the last knows he’s in over his head, so he imports Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart) as his deputy — son of a famed lawman and himself an individual of reputation in other places. Fun fact: Hinds later played Stewart’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life — talk about another image facelift).

Well … the first the town sees him, he’s helping a “good girl” (Irene Hervey) off the stage and in the process aiding her by holding some of her garb in his hands. Then it turns out that he doesn’t carry a gun. This is all good for guffaws on the street, and Donlevy is delighted once he gets over his sheer double-take bewilderment (no actor did this better than he did), though Winninger is, of course, mortified. Another fun fact: Hervey was married to singer Allan Jones in real life, whose big hit was “The Donkey Serenade” from the same year. Together, they parented singer Jack Jones, and I think I recall from an old “This Is Your Life” episode that he recorded it the same night Jack was born.

Stewart, though, turns out to have his own effective style at defusing trouble, and he develops something of a perverse relationship with Dietrich that includes lots of physical mayhem in the saloon and in her living quarters. Even with this, though, the big fight is between Dietrich and Uni Merkel as a local wife who will tolerate no nonsense. And speaking of violence, calming Hervey has a hothead brother played by Jack Carson in a role much meaner than he usually did. Donlevy, who really does own everything, wants to change Carson for moving his cattle over Donlevy land, and Carson just knocks down a fence and plus on through.

Eventually, Stewart employs a few surprises in his style and finally proves he has the stuff, as he additionally pursues whatever happened to the missing Winninger predecessor. Another ‘A’-teamer (Farran Nehme) wrote the Criterion essay, and she notes how, for all its glory, Destry was actually fairly far down on the year’s list of the renowned 1939’s biggest hits, such was the competition.

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Bowing again to Gary Tooze on his DVD Beaver site, I totally agree to unexpectedly striking degree that the All-Region Koch Blu-ray from Germany several years ago has far crisper visuals despite Criterion getting a 4K treatment here. But Criterion’s extras are very cool, including Marshall talking about working during Hollywood’s formative years (he’s right out of the unmatched Kevin Brownlow Hollywood documentary from the early 1930s). And the insights from Donald Dewey, author of James Stewart — A Biography, so impressed me that I tried to get the book for my Kindle, but it isn’t available. All in all this is a strong package, but boy, that Koch version looks good.

Mike’s Picks: ‘King Creole’ and ‘Destry Rides Again’

Kino Lorber Sets Home Release Dates for April Classic Movie Slate

Kino Lorber has set home release dates for its April 2020 slate of classic movies. The 19-movie slate begins rolling out April 7 with the following releases, available on Blu-ray Disc only:

Angel — a 1937 comedy from the legendary director of The Love Parade and The Merry Widow, Ernst Lubitsch. The film features the wife of a British diplomat who goes to Paris and has a short-lived affair with an American, who turns out to be old war buddies with her husband. Included with the film is a new audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of How Did Lubitsch Do it?

Murder, He Says — a 1945 comedy about a public opinion surveyor who is sent to the town of Plainville after the previous one went missing. As he works with one of the local families, he begins to suspect that the lady and her two sons murdered the previous surveyor. Bonus features include a new audio commentary by filmmaker and historian Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel.

The Lives of A Bengal Lancer — a 1935 feature depicting the tale of the heroic men who guarded the British Empire’s perilous Khyber Pass in India. Deadly threats escalate when the men join a mission to overthrow an evil chieftain, Mohammed Khan. Bonus features include a new audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.

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The General Died at Dawn — a 1936 feature directed by Lewis Milestone about a soldier of fortune who winds up falling into conflict between two warlords, when General Yang and General Wu each attempt to purchase arms to control the Chinese provinces. The General Died at Dawn was nominated for three Oscars: Actor in a Supporting Role (Akim Tamiroff), Cinematography (Victor Milner) and Score (Boris Morros, Werner Janssen). Bonus features include a new audio commentary by author and film historian Lee Gambin and Actress and film historian Rutanya Alda.

Beau Geste — a 1939 action film from William A. Wellman, featuring three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion, where they fall under the rule of a tyrannical sergeant. The brothers fight for their lives as they plot a mutiny against tyranny and defend a desert fortress against a brutal enemy. Included with the film is new audio commentary by William Wellman Jr. and historian Frank Thompson.

Subsequent releases will be issued on Blu-ray Disc as well as standard DVD.

Coming April 14 are The Limit, a 1957 feature about a major in the U.S. Army who is accused of aiding his captors while held in a North Korean prison during the war and brought up on charges of treason; Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a 1981 Western from Lamont Johnson; Jenny, a 1970 drama about a woman who winds up pregnant and moves to New York City, where she marries a local filmmaker who wants to avoid getting drafted into Vietnam and offers to support her if he can claim the baby as his own; and Song of Norway, a 1970 musical biography based on the life of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

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Due April 21 are Secret Ceremony, a 1968 drama from Joseph Losey about a mysterious young woman, who, when riding a bus in London, mistakes a middle-aged prostitute for her recently deceased mother and invites her to move into her home and act as her mother; Woman Times Seven, a 1967 anthology film of seven episodes starring Shirley MaClaine, mostly  based on aspects of love and adultery; Connecting Rooms, a 1971 drama about two older people whose lives are linked when they become lodgers in the same seedy boarding house in London; Love Among Ruins, a 1975 drama and winner of six Emmy Awards from director George Cukor that stars Katharine Hepburn as a recent divorcee and Laurence Olivier as her lawyer and, as it turns out, an old suiter of hers from decades before.

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Rounding out Kino’s April 2020 slate are five more releases arriving in stores on April 28: Outcast of the Islands, a 1952 film about a man who is dismissed from his management position at a Dutch East Indies port after being accused of stealing; The Sound Barrier, a 1952 feature about a wealthy oilman with a passion for aviation who, in his quest to break the sound barrier, has already lost his son and chooses his daughter’s husband and World War II pilot to be one of the test pilots; Billy Liar, a 1963 comedy from director John Schlesinger about a working-class man who has dreams of escaping his dead-end job that finally meets a woman who just might inspire him to move out of his parents’ house; The Caper of the Golden Bulls, a 1967 comedy from writer and director Russell Rouse about a retired bank robber that is blackmailed by a former companion in to stealing some precious jewels at a bank in Spain; and Don’t Drink the Water, a 1969 comedy based on a play by actor, writer, and director Woody Allen.

 

Pittsburgh

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 9/10/19;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Frank Craven.

Pittsburgh, directed by Lewis Seiler, is a trashy wartime potboiler through and through — though as with a lot of predominantly ‘B’ filmmakers who managed to hold on by his fingertips in the industry for four decades, Seiler does keep this calculated follow-up to The Spoilers moving lickety-split whenever a droning voiceover narration that saddles poor supporting player Frank Craven can ever get a breather.

By The Spoilers, I mean the fourth and all but certainly best of the five screen versions taken from author Rex Beach’s “Alaskan” — given that I have seen the almost never shown 1930 version with Gary Cooper and (on its initial release, to boot) the 1955 Technicolor job in which Jeff Chandler and Rory Calhoun must have blown the studio’s annual mud budget for an entire year. What’s more, it’s tough to imagine the preceding 1914 and 1923 table-setters matching the star power of the 1942’s Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne unless there’s, say, a Tom Santschi cult out there that I don’t know about. So, it’s no small deal that we get the same casting triumvirate here, which was a calculated move. The Spoilers, which has also just come out on a Kino Classics Blu-ray, was a June-’42 release, and Universal had Pittsburgh in theaters shortly before Christmas.

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As before, Wayne only gets third billing here, even though Pittsburgh is his character’s name — or at least nickname since people probably didn’t really christen male children with that moniker until maybe the advent of Steelers fans. And speaking of “attitude,” Wayne’s miner-turned-magnate has plenty: forging a signature to get a crucial loan for his start-up business; good-naturedly (for awhile) conning partner Scott in every conceivable situation as if he were Bing Crosby and Scott were Bob Hope; failing to follow through on raises and hospitalization for his employed coal miners whose reasonable union rep (Thomas Gomez) has exhaused his patience; treating his main squeeze (Marlene Dietrich) shabbily if you can imagine anyone doing that; and even shafting (to keep with the mining motif) his father-in-law after marrying “up” to a decent-enough society princess (Louise Albritton).

So Wayne is a villain here, you say? Well, at this point, he was trying to carve out his exact screen image, which resulted in him taking on a couple roles as “troubled” males. (See also Cecil D. Mille’s Reap the Wild Wind, also just out from Kino Classics in all its gorgeousness, and a huge personal favorite I’d be reviewing here had I not done the same a few months ago via the all-Region French release that preceded it). Wayne smiles and jokes a lot here, so he’s not exactly hateful nor even sinister. What’s interesting about the Spoilers/Pittsburgh marquee choices is the fact that someone had to come off as a heavy or something like it, and neither Wayne nor Scott ever did this very much. Thus, matters were equitably handled, with Scott as pretty much an all-out bad guy in The Spoilers and Wayne a milder version of that here.

One thing was certain: Pittsburgh was going to have an elaborate brawl between the two because that’s what all five versions of The Spoilers were renowned for — not the greatest ones in screen history, necessarily, but possibly the most Wagnerian. The one here takes place in a coal mine with both Wayne and Scott in street clothes, which precipitates a heavily script-contrived injury to Dietrich (IMDb.com lists seven writing credits here) when she rushes to stop it. The third and last of the Dietrich-Wayne pairings (not counting their famous offscreen romance), the picture never knows quite what to do with her character: a glamour-puss who comes from a mining background herself. To my eye, the actress looks a lot better in the final scenes when she’s less painted up like a doll and suggests a real human being in perhaps her 40s. (Dietrich is “aged” slightly less than her male co-stars, whose hair gets the salt-and-pepper makeup treatment.)

The story is told in flashback against a still relatively recent World War II backdrop, with the virtues of coal and coal mining pounded home in about every other scene. (Well, time marches on.) Craven, a great character actor I just saw as a standout in John Huston’s low-side-of-spotty In This Our Life, is forced to tell us everything that happens in the movie before we see it ourselves. This leaves it to director Seiler to at least keep things moving, which I have to say he does.

At USA Today, I worked next to Andy Seiler (No Relation), and we had plural jawbones trying to determine if Louis had ever made a good movie. The answer is probably something close to “nearly no” — though in fairness, his most famous one and some say best (Guadalcanal Diary) is one I’ve never gotten around to seeing. I do have some pleasant memories of The Great K&A Train Robbery (one of Tom Mix’s career highlights) and his Dead End Kids romps (Crime School and Hell’s Kitchen, whose casting of Ronald Reagan made it closer to Heck’s Kitchen).

And for camp, or at least outlandish, value, there were also three films with Perry Como; Women’s Prison (a poor man’s Caged with duplicated Jan Sterling’s casting, which I think was federal law for distaff Slammer Cinema at the time); and the notorious The Winning Team, with Reagan as baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. (Personally, I always thought the ad campaign for that one should have blared: “Frank Lovejoy IS Rogers Hornsby.”) As for the Como’s, I once, back in my AFI days, programmed a double bill of Seiler’s If I’m Lucky (Como runs for governor) with Daniel Mann’s Ada (Dean Martin runs for governor). I thought it was inspired, but on audience-indifference level, it rated with the time Cool As Ice with Vanilla Ice placed (I believe) 17th nationally at the box office on its opening weekend.

But I digress. The Blu-ray, as with cinematographer Robert De Grasse’s original labors. has to go from mining scenes to shadowy Dietrich glamour stuff to expensive, well-lit parties thrown by Wayne’s not-for-long rich wife — all of which this release captures capably. The score by Frank Skinner, who was seemingly at Universal as long as The Mummy was, makes overly heavy use of “A Garden in the Rain,” an oldie even then that was later revived into half of a huge two-sided hit with “Tell Me Why” in early ’52 by The Four Aces, who at times sang with such intensity that they could have been called The Four Hernias. One real ringer here is the casting of Shemp Howard early in the film (and he’s quite funny) as Wayne’s haberdasher. I don’t think I’ll lose sleep if I eschew research and simply state that this must have been the only time the two of them ever worked together. Though Howard wouldn’t have been out of place as anyone else if someone had found a role for him in The Conqueror.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Wagon Master’ and ‘Pittsburgh’